The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the US is scheduled to expire on 5 February 2021. The lack of an extension to the deal could pose significant global security threats.

Slow START to talks

New START is the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement that can be traced back to the Cold War era. The treaty allows Russia and the US to maintain no more than 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads, 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and 800 deployed and non-deployed missile launches and bombers. The treaty also established an improved inspection and verification mechanism. The treaty will expire in February unless the two sides agree to extend it. The treaty includes a provision that allows it to be extended for one additional five-year term, without the need for legislative approval.

START Treaty Timeline

While Russia has consistently expressed its intention to extend New START for another five years and wants the extension to proceed without any modification or preconditions, US President Donald Trump’s administration has adopted a more sceptical attitude towards arms control in general, and nuclear arms control in particular. With respect to the New START treaty, the US repeatedly stated that Washington wanted to abandon a bilateral nuclear arms control process with Russia in favour of a multilateral arms control process involving China. 

However, having failed to get China to participate in the process, the Trump administration in August signalled its readiness to discuss the extension of New START – potentially for less than five years – as an interim measure before a new multilateral treaty, including China, can be negotiated. 

US election complicates matters

US and Russian negotiators have held several rounds of strategic stability talks in Vienna (Austria) with little progress. But a few weeks before the US election, the White House seems to be making a push for agreeing an extension before the election, perhaps to give Trump a chance to claim a major foreign policy success close to the vote. Trump’s opponent – Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, who is the most likely victor in the 3 November election – has been consistently in favour of extending New START and therefore is unlikely to challenge any agreement made by Trump. 

Despite the hastily arranged high-level talks, we assess that the two countries will struggle to agree a full extension of the treaty before election day, unless the US side is ready to abandon its proposals to modify the treaty. The Trump Administration wanted the extension to cover all warheads – including non-strategic (tactical) weapons – and proposed – yet unspecified – modifications to the verification procedures. Russia has rejected both demands.

Meanwhile, Moscow may be gambling that it will find it easier to reach a deal with Biden. If US and Russian leaders agree to issue a joint statement before the elections, it is likely to paper over the significant remaining differences between the two sides, leaving it to the next US administration to complete practical negotiations.  

Post-election risks 

Biden has stated that he supports an unconditional extension of the New START treaty for an additional five-year term, during which he wants to prepare a new agreement. If Biden is elected and the US political transition proceeds smoothly and without delay, the new Democratic president-elect would be likely to issue a statement on the New START extension before taking office and finalise the extension in late January after inauguration.

However, if the US presidential election result is contentious – an increasingly credible outcome – or if Russia is once again accused of major interference in the US electoral process, agreeing an extension or reaching a new deal before 5 February will become more problematic.

Moreover, the role of the US Congress should not be discounted. Although a formal Congressional approval for an extension is not required, Congress may pressure the next president to take an even tougher line on Russia, including imposing new sanctions on Russia, which could make an agreement politically difficult on both sides.

Impact on nuclear non-proliferation

A collapse of New START poses a serious threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which is predicated on the commitment from the two nuclear superpowers to continue reducing their nuclear arsenals. Although the P5 process including five key nuclear weapons states has been important in coordinating non-proliferation policies, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has delivered a major blow to this effort. At the next Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which is due to take place before April 2021 after being postponed in 2020 because of COVID-19, a collapse of New START could lead more countries to pursue nuclear capabilities. An increasingly multipolar nuclear world amid growing geopolitical tensions and the decline of global and regional collective security institutions represent the most significant threats to the global security situation in the coming decades.

The US’s European allies have been vocal in their support for an extension of New START in its current form. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both called for an extension to New START, as have other EU and NATO leaders. They are concerned about a new nuclear arms race in Europe and the end to inspections of Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles. However, their opinions have had a limited impact on the Trump administration.

Wider implications for business

A collapse of the treaty will raise geopolitical risks not only in US-Russia relations, but also in the transatlantic and global contexts. A nuclear arms race in Europe or East Asia will increase security risks for many businesses, including the threat of miscalculation and rapid escalation. Any threat to the non-proliferation regime could push countries such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia towards developing nuclear capabilities, thus raising the threat of unilateral sanctions and a deteriorating investment climate.

A nuclear arms race will impact Russia’s capacity to implement structural reforms as its financial resources – already impacted by the lower oil price – will be channelled towards a costly military modernisation. Acceleration in US nuclear modernisation is bound to push Russia and China into an even closer military partnership, which could threaten stability and prosperity in East Asia and beyond.

However, a successful extension of New START and progress towards a new multilateral confidence-building process in the nuclear sphere would enhance security and improve the business environment not only in Europe, but elsewhere – in South Asia, where tensions continue to build between nuclear-armed India, Pakistan and China, and in the Middle East, where the New START extension and a revival of the Iran nuclear deal would play a critical role in attracting new long-term investment. Greater stability could lead to new opportunities for economic diversification and closer regional economic cooperation.

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